My Hunt For The Art Collection Stolen By Nazis From My Family
By the early ’90s, Simon Goodman, a London-born, Los Angeles-based music executive, knew only bits and pieces of his family’s history.
He knew his Jewish grandparents had “somehow died in the war.”
He knew his distant father, “a very shut down, damaged man,” had spent his life searching for something.
But it wasn’t until he received boxes of his late father’s things in 1994 that Goodman discovered the full truth: He was from a very wealthy, prominent German Jewish family that was destroyed during World War II, his grandparents killed in the Holocaust, and their possessions, including a very large and influential art collection, taken.
In his new book, The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis, Goodman documents how these discoveries—and the realization that “he might actually be able to do something” about them—changed his life.
Goodman is working to track down the nearly 1,000 pieces of art, silver, and other precious objects owned by his grandparents on behalf of himself, his brother, and his “dear aunt” who is now 97 years old, and survived the war hiding out in Italy.
In the mid-19th century, Goodman’s great-great-grandfather, Bernhard Gutmann (the name was anglicized later by Goodman’s father, Bernard), established what would become the second-largest bank in Germany, the Dresdner Bank.
Over the years, the family quickly became part of the elite, investing their wealth back into the economy and infrastructure of their home country, and expanding their banking empire.
Several branches of the family, including Goodman’s, eventually moved to the Netherlands, and amassed impressive art collections.
Then World War II erupted.
“When my family’s story has been told, it was inaccurate or otherwise my family had just disappeared, in a sense, from the history books, which was odd because at one time they had been one of the most important families in Germany,” Goodman told The Daily Beast about his decision to write a book.
Bernard, who was living in London when the war suddenly broke out, spent his days trying to track down his parents’ beloved art collection, with largely unsuccessful results.
Despite the dire news coming out of Germany, Bernard’s parents had remained at their family home in Holland after powerful friends assured them that they weren’t in danger.
By the time they realized what was really going on, it was too late to leave.
Over the years, Goodman’s grandfather had passionately amassed an impressive collection of works.
He acquired over 60 paintings including such old-masters as Degas’s Paysage, Renoir’s Le Poirier, Madonnas by Fra Bartolomeo and Hans Mewling, Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Red Cape, and Frans Hals’s Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz, Massa.
In addition, he had an extensive collection of silver, sculptures, and other art objects, ultimately bringing the size of his art trove to nearly 1,000 pieces.
According to Goodman’s account of his grandparents’ experience, the Nazis took an almost sick delight in tormenting the couple after they invaded the country.
While Fritz and Louise Gutmann were still living in their home, they were forced to watch as Nazi art agents working for party leaders like Hitler and Göring walked through their house, inventorying their prized possessions while they looked on.
Fritz had managed to send some of the art collection to France in the care of art dealer Paul Graupe, never imagining that it would be in any danger.
Graupe was also Jewish, and the Nazis eventually confiscated the works in his care after they invaded France.
Goodman has been able to track some of these pieces down down through the help of the renowned art historian Rose Valland, who covertly documented the Nazi thefts and helped the “Monuments Men” recover troves of work stolen during the war.
But much of the collection remained at their home, Bosbeek. Nazi agents forced Fritz to sell several pieces for a price way below their value.
In exchange, they deposited the money in a bank account under state control—the Nazis wanted everything to look legal, after all—that never actually reached the Gutmanns. They also assured the couple they would help them leave the country.
This promise was a lie, and Fritz and Louise were soon deported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt, where Fritz was killed. After his death, Louise was killed at Auschwitz.
“We can’t obviously bring back the lives of those that have gone. However, it is possible to trace our things,” Goodman, 67, says. “My father, I think, was tormented when he probably even saw some pieces hanging in a gallery somewhere. How did they get them, you know? It’s bad enough that he was trying to adjust to the fact that his parents were murdered, but there were his parents’ cherished things on somebody else’s—or some gallery museum’s—wall.”
For the past 20 years, Goodman has worked to compile a complete list of his grandparents’ collection, research and track down each piece, prove he and his family are the rightful heirs, and battle bureaucratic systems, private collectors, and the art establishment to get them back.
The effort to reclaim the trove has been so consuming that Goodman eventually quit his job and dedicated himself to the search full time.
Over the years, there have been many wins, and the fight is easier now than when Goodman tracked down his first piece in 1995, a Degas he found in the possession of a wealthy private collector in Chicago.
In the early days, auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s fought him at every turn, even going so far as to threaten lawsuits against him in an effort to protect sales and clients.
But now both houses have dedicated restitution departments and there is an increased emphasis on determining a work’s provenance before it is bought or sold.
Goodman has had to learn how to pick and choose his battles. Not every “win” has resulted in his family taking possession of their art. He’s had to agree to jointly sell a work with the current “owner” and split the profits.
He’s had to sell much of the work he’s gotten back in order to fund the expensive search efforts and to fairly share the inheritance, and, in a few cases, he’s had to settle for just an updated provenance that adds his grandparents to the proper history of the piece.
Then there are other cases, like his experience with the Dutch government.
In 2002, the Netherlands made a big show of returning 255 pieces that had ended up in their possession.
The Goodman family was thrilled, and attended a handover ceremony complete with bureaucrats and photo ops. But later, Goodman discovered that the Dutch still had several of his family’s pieces that, for some reason, they had not included as part of the transfer.
“They’re bureaucrats, and they did a sort of decent thing in 2002, and they have done [it] to some other families, but honestly it’s only very reluctantly,” Goodman says. “They felt they were in a corner and they needed to show good faith. But they don’t hand things back happily. It’s a battle.”
The Orpheus Clock is an engaging, beautifully written tale that not only puts another human face on the terror and destruction caused by the Nazis, but also clearly lays out their sadistically bureaucratic methods when it came to stripping Jewish families of their possessions and the often astounding struggle the surviving families have had to endure to try to reclaim their heirlooms.
With Hollywood blockbusters like The Monuments Men and captivating stories like the discovery of an apartment filled with masterpieces stolen by one of the most notorious Nazi art dealers, Hildebrand Gurlitt (the apartment belonged to his son Cornelius), popular opinion has moved largely to the side of victims’ families in their battle to recover the art stolen from them.
In 1998, the Washington Principles were passed, giving restitution some legal heft.
But despite this seeming support, the reality is that families like the Goodmans have had to engage in a tooth-and-nail battle to reclaim each and every piece, not to mention the memories that go along with them.
“I’m very, very happy when I can send my dear old aunt a dish or something, a pillow that we found that came from the house [she grew up in],” Goodman says. “Also, I’ve sent her some very nice checks so she lives in a certain amount of comfort in her final years.”
As part of a new generation somewhat removed from the trauma of the war years, Goodman is willing to make all the noise he needs to bring attention to his cause. Where his father suffered in silence, he says he’s willing “[to] make a fuss.”
Based on the outrageous stories of injustice following the war that are sprinkled throughout The Orpheus Clock, a fuss may be just what’s needed to change how survivors and families of victims are treated.
One thing his father did succeed in reclaiming after the war was Bosbeek, his childhood home.
But that return came with a shocking provision. The Dutch government returned it to his ownership, but required him to pay back taxes on the property—including for the years when the Nazis had occupied it after deporting and killing his parents.
Not able to afford that expense, Bernard was forced to sell the property to the current tenants.
Despite the frustrating—sometimes infuriating—situations he encounters, Goodman is largely optimistic about how far he’s come. As public opinion has started to favor his side, he’s found that appealing to private collectors on a personal level has been surprisingly successful.
“I found one painting here in L.A. by Franz von Stuck, a German Symbolist painter, [a] strange painting,” Goodman says. “That collector…after I’d talked to him for about a year, eventually decided he didn’t want the painting anymore. He took it off his wall, and he literally helped load it in the back of my old Jag.”
Returns like the von Stuck’s are a dream, but, unfortunately, not the norm.
According to Christopher Marinello, founder of Art Recovery International and the Art Claim Database who is often dubbed the “top detective” for art stolen by the Nazis, there is still a long way to go in the fight for restitution.
“We’re way ahead of where we used to be as far as awareness is concerned but we’re still very far behind as far as cooperation and restitution is concerned,” Marinello says.
“There are dealers and collectors that don’t want to know if their objects have these problems because they either paid money for the object or they don’t want to lose money on the object. Greed is what’s motivating people.”
Plus, there’s still a lot of looted treasure that hasn’t yet been discovered. When asked if he thinks there are more stashes like the infamous Gurlitt art apartment, Marinello says, “Absolutely, there are many more Cornelius Gurlitts out there, and it’s just a matter of time before they surface.”
Goodman would agree. He is still a long way from recovering his family’s entire collection.
“After I’ve been doing this for 20 years, it’s become apparent what’s still missing from, say, my family’s collection,” Goodman says. “And there are many important paintings that haven’t seen the light of day for well over 50 years. So there’s still a lot that’s hiding out there. I suspect much of it is in Switzerland.”
But with a fierce dedication to his family’s memory, Goodman isn’t slowing anytime soon.
“I think I’m going to have to keep this up until I fall over, honestly,” he says.
“When the world deals with this properly and thoroughly, then yes, maybe there should be some limitation to these types of claims because obviously records are disappearing, memories are fading, and things may be lost to history,” Marinello says.
“But the world is not dealing with this now, and you still have museums who have looted works of art that are reluctant to give them up. We still have collectors that are hiding works on their walls or in their closest that are looted. You have dealers giving things back to their clients, so they’re not dealing with it.
"So they have no right to demand a statute of limitations so they can bring these hidden works out into the limelight. Bring them out first, and then maybe we’ll talk about a statute of limitations.”
For now, then, the fight goes on. Each morning, Goodman “spend[s] hours scouring the Internet,” looking for glimpses of his family’s lost collection, or clues that may lead him, like breadcrumbs, to his next discovery.
“I have to admit, I actually enjoy this. I find it very exciting,” Goodman says. “I have a sense that my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather are all looking over my shoulder and I think they’re all smiling down at me, honestly. I’m proud of being able to tell the story. I’m bringing those, at least in my family and all who were connected, back to life in a sense… As they say, every picture tells a story, and these stories need to be told.”